Ever since The Great Game ended, Afghan politics has been dominated by an internal struggle between rival ethnic factions in an attempt to create the social, political and institutional trappings of a nation state. That writ has always been elusive; given the blood and treasure the U.S. and numerous NATO members have dropped inside the Graveyard of Empires, I think it pertinent to evaluate the traction U.S. Commanders have gained in their application of counterinsurgency doctrine.
As it stands now, Afghanistan cannot stand without permanent U.S. support. This is dismal, especially given how much ‘capital’ the Americans and others have deployed. But a deeper look at Afghanistan’s social, geopolitical components reveals a dynamism that is promising.
The Afghan President Ashram Ghani and his Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah constitute a new beginning for Afghanistan. The problem is that this arrangement isn’t working, the entire constituted government remains paralyzed. As of this writing, this arrangement, although the best of all alternatives in resolution of the 2014 elections cannot produce any effective writ inside Afghanistan. The split between the President and his Chief Executive reflects Afghanistan’s split between ethnic Pashtuns, embodying the old dominant political class of Afghanistan constituting nearly 50% of the entire population and Tajiks (the ethnic class of the Chief Executive), Tajiks represent nearly 25%. The animosity between these ethnic groups has been aggravated since 2001 when the U.S. supported a Tajik dominated Northern Alliance in the toppling of the Taliban (talib is a seminary student) in Kabul. This split continues to shape the modern trajectory of the Afghan nation state. However, their are numerous other divisions that cannot be reconciled to the egalitarian premise of Islam; the Hazaras, Uzbeks animosity between competing warlords commanding poppy, foreign aid and loyalty. General Rashid Dostum remains the leader of the northern Uzbeks, an ethnic group whose geopolitical, ideology affinity resonates with India as it aggravates Islamabad. Atta Mohammed of the northern Tajiks and Ismail Khan in Herat. None of this touches on the longstanding animosity between Kabul’s relatively liberal intelligence and its deeply conservative, archaic brethren throughout the Afghan countryside. Its simply total paralysis.
If you ask anyone working in Washington about Afghanistan, they argue that U.S. policy cannot reconcile the reality of nearly $5 million in annual aid given to Kabul. As both General John Campbell and Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford have revealed, the U.S. needs a permanent commitment in Afghanistan.
As it stands now, the militancy of the Pashtuns and its patronage system residing on both sides of the Durand Line reveal a strategic conviction that they can wait for the American’s to leave. Why is this significant?
U.S. C.O.I.N. (counter-insurgency) specialists have long believed that the Afghan Taliban must be brought into any political or policy agreement residing in Kabul.
Any peace settlement would partially overcome the fault lines that torment Afghanistan since its inception as a nation state in the 1890’s. This means a unity of federalism that would preserve a state while diminishing social, ethnic, sectarian conflicts between the writ of the nation state and reactionary regional-ethnic conflicts and tribalism; between State led institutions like the army, education and health care and religious animosity; a comity between cities and countryside, between social conservatives and urban elites.
Historically, this was previously achieved by trade, having Kabul remaining a patron of either Persia, South Central west Asia or Mughal Empires in northwest India.
Afghanistan never stood alone, it always sought out private relations with dominant regional power brokers. Poppy strengthens the very decentralized order that fuels conflict. For Afghanistan to win, it will need to do what Emir Abdur Rahman did in the creation of Afghanistan, find a partner (Britain) and become a useful proxy for British arms with generous financial subsidies. Contemporary times may place New Delhi in this position to the detriment of U.S. bilateral relations with Islamabad.
What may prove more useful is the dominant role of digital technology within the very decentralized works of Afghanistan’s poppy culture to fuel the writ of the nation state. Is Hayek’s concept of spontaneous order relevant here, or are we permanently hinged to Carlyle’s notion of the great man theory of political economy? The fact of the matter is that we must understand the components of Afghanistan outside the Great Game paradigm, we must find the moral agency of historical causation within the Afghan social order itself to build the nation state.
Can the rival, overlapping claims of loyalty permanently thwart western geopolitical objectives? How can Afghanistan’s nearly permanently weakened state of human capital be challenged toward growth.
The answer may not be discerned within Islam.
The Taliban hold the most promise of providing that leadership, but western policy planners cannot abide having the Taliban hold a position of strength within Afghanistan because they’ve always sought to serve Pakistan’s geopolitical objectives of strategic depth in its relations with New Delhi.
The key to a successful Afghanistan resides in a competent Army.
For this to take hold, Afghanistan needs a financial base to service the growth of its capitalization projects. Poppy will not do.
As of now, it remains U.S. aid. This is the only glue holding the entire edifice together, for the only viable armed regime that successfully created an armed force matching Afghanistan’s limited resource base (as opposed to foreign aid) was the Taliban. They possessed neither extravagant salaries and homes, nor needed to permanently field large numbers in conflict, nor did they acquire heavy weaponry tied to elaborate, expensive command systems.
U.S. C.O.I.N. operators have sought to capitalize on this insight by creating the Quadrilateral Coordination Group between U.S., China & Pakistan. By introducing more players seeking stability, the limited resource base of the Afghan political economy may grow. Having the Islamic State reside in Afghanistan has not helped, however, ironically, it may thwart a stimulative growth agenda to help create a national or regional basis for a peace settlement.
Why is this unlikely?
If the U.S. leaves the Afghan project, India, Iran, Pakistan, China, Central Asian nation states, Russia and China will align interests in a way that damages both the U.S. and any regional ally.
So where does the U.S. stand strategically?
We must continue to do the following until we find White House leadership to field competent statecraft compelling Islamabad to change its relation with Kabul. U.S. policy should continue the following: a permanent ceasefire that would solidify U.S. commitment, the Pashtun aim of total restoration of Taliban control over Afghanistan will NOT happen, that Pakistan spend capital to change its relation with Pashtun proxies on both sides of Durand, and finally; a peace deal that would change Taliban regional calculus about is social, political ambitions while opening it toward sharing a national Afghan identity.
Absent this, we’re stuck with low intensity conflict drawing major regional nation states like India, China & Pakistan into permanent conflict.